“The Lady In Red, 1979”

“I have two arms. Two legs. And I know all the words to ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’.”

The Lady In Red, 1979 (Pamela Sue Martin), New World Pictures

You have a simple farm girl in Polly Franklin (Pamela Sue Martin) singing show-tunes while she’s getting the eggs for transit into town. She stops and does a soft-shoe for the assembled horses and chickens. Her no-nonsense father rants and raves about hell and damnation. While in town, she witnesses a bank robbery. The robbers (one of them, Mary Woronov, playing a moll) take Polly for a short ride as they elude the cops. After a talk with a newspaper man, she discovers she was in the clutches of the Dillinger gang. Some time later, she heads to Chicago and sets about working in textile sweatshops for sleazy Dick Miller (a staple in Roger Corman movies). Miller exploits the workers (this must’ve been before Unions) and Polly leads a revolt. She gets a job as a dance hall girl – 10 cents a dance!

Working her way up in the food chain, she becomes a decent prostitute pulling in good money. The Johns really go for that innocent naive thing, and Sue Martin plays every scene with the youthful zeal that made her extremely popular as Nancy Drew in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, which ran on the ABC Television Network from 1977 to 1979. It was rumored she left the show because of this movie, but the dates don’t quite line up, and most official explanations cite “creative differences” as the main reason for her departure. She hits the sheets with a mysterious hit man named Turk (Robert Forster), which gives her the idea to spend more time sidling up to the Mob. Polly’s an angler, and much sharper than most women who resort to worse measures to get through the days in the incredibly corrupt cesspool of Chicago in the Prohibition era.

She spends some time in jail where she has to deal with monstrous matron Nancy (Porky’s “Tallywhacker Inspector”) Parsons. The movie is a kaleidoscope of genre and exploitation films; gangland, prostitution, women-in-prison movies. The violence is truly graphic and bloody. In fact, this is one of the more violent movies I’ve seen, and it seems to have made that way on purpose. The Lady in Red is not a movie you’re going to find in a multiplex. More likely, the drive-in circuit. It’s more a tent-pole show, moving from town to town and making money. Sandwiched between all of Polly’s hi-jinks is her love affair with famed gangster John H. Dillinger (Robert Conrad). They make a cute couple, but Conrad isn’t in the movie enough, nor do I think he was intended to be. This is the girl’s story, not his. He’s a mystery to Polly. He never tells her who he is, but everybody else seems to figure it out. The movie is based on a footnote in crime history. Imagine seeing the bloody aftermath of the notorious shootout. Dillinger, riddled with bullet and a woman in a red dress at his side as he dies. This was John Sayles’ central premise when he was mandated by Corman to write the movie.  Who is this girl?

Louise Fletcher’s duplicitious Anna Sage (working through a lot of early childhood pain, I gather) drops the dime to Hoover’s FBI task force on Polly’s relationship with Dillinger. The Feds move in at the Biograph Theater where Dillinger and the little lady take in a movie. Sage “makes” Dillinger and the Feds plug him full of lead and leave him a bloody mess in front of the marquee. This isn’t how the story actually unfolds from what I’ve read. In reality, shots were fired upon his exit, and Dillinger gave chase through a side alley and was shot in the back, severing his spinal cord. In the movie, a crowd of amused spectators dabs napkins and handkerchiefs into his blood. The Press has it all wrong, concocting a narrative that she was the woman who betrayed him. She orchestrates a little payback, and in the process takes up Dillinger’s bank-robbing work. Director Lewis Teague shot the movie in 20 days with a budget of under a half a million dollars. He would go on to direct Alligator, Cujo, Cat’s Eye, and the Romancing the Stone sequel, The Jewel of the Nile.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Brainstorm, 1983”

“Why do you have to die to let go?”

Brainstorm, 1983 (Christopher Walken), MGM/UA

Where does our yearning for technology originate? Is it the most foolish form of narcissism; the desire to create “artificial” life to earn god-like stature in the pantheon of universal nature? Where does virtual reality fit? Is that our fatal flaw as humans? That, rather than experience life through the natural receptors of our eyes we, instead, want to replicate reality through the circuitry of a computer’s architecture? As Brainstorm opens, scientist Christopher Walken samples a technology that allows him to experience the reactions of another. In this case, a goofy co-worker who tries a piece of steak with marshmallow sauce and a cherry on top. As a gag, he substitutes his interface for that of a chimp, which nearly fries Walken’s brain, but the test is successful. It’s a wonderful moment that also points to the inherent dangers of going down rabbit holes, or in this case, up jungle vines. It’s interesting to me the connection to primates, as I tend to view our human relationship with computers comparable to lower primates and their relationship to us.

Removed from the movie’s staggering science, we plunge into Walken’s strained relationship with his wife, Karen (Natalie Wood, in her final role). It’s never clear to me why they are separated, other than the requisite work-obsessed husband who doesn’t give enough of his soul to his marriage, or that Wood, while initially a warm person, is emotionally distant from her husband. Meanwhile, aforementioned rag-a-muffin/science dork prankster Gordy has the most fun, working flight simulators, riding horses and driving race cars all while recording the experiences for the software. Karen works out the marketing for the device. Her problem is to make the unit much smaller than it presently is (basically a motorcycle helmet with a lot of circuitry attached). She convinces Walken to reduce the circuitry so that it can be worn in something similar to a bicycle helmet. The applications of this device are off-the-wall. Machiavellian CEO of their firm, Alex (Cliff Robertson) is blown away by the system and immediately sees dollar signs. Walken and colleague Louise Fletcher are understandably worried about long-term effects on the brain and other consequences.

Let’s go back to the fatal flaw. Why do we put so much time and work into replicating and simulating life experiences rather than enjoying them on our terms? I understand practical applications. The movie takes pains to explain that the Military would love to get their hands on the technology, but there’s also the obvious “harmless” application: games. Unfortunately, as the movie pre-dates virtual reality technology being made today, it also makes recent attempts by Google and Microsoft look primitive by comparison. While somewhat cost-prohibitive right now, I can see a future where everyone will wear devices like these on their heads, perhaps experiencing simulated “life” while simultaneously engaging in the more mundane aspects of their real lives. Maybe parachuting into an active volcano while grabbing a carton of milk at the supermarket? Our friend, Gordy, produces the virtual reality equivalent of a “sex tape,” which he proffers to a co-worker, who then goes into what I can only call an orgasm-induced state of catatonia. If computers are perfect, yet imperfect man creates perfect computers, then computers aren’t really perfect, are they? Doy.

In the muddle of Walken and Wood’s domestic troubles, there was the very interesting (and disturbing) idea that feelings could be recorded along with the sight stimulation. I don’t think we ever go further than that, except to finally see that we, as humans, can become irredeemably lost in our thoughts and feelings, and that the computer will never know when to stop destroying us with our fears. There’s a lot to admire in Brainstorm, but the movie feels oddly cold, lacking the true human connection we need from Wood and Walken; the best scenes are when Wood relives their courtship and marriage, and the couple reconcile as she sings a song to him under a bed-sheet. It’s such a beautiful (and sad) moment, you wish there were more scenes like these. MGM and director Douglas Trumbull swore up-and-down all of Wood’s scenes were shot before her untimely death, but she feels like a ghost in this movie. Walken, with his unusual mannerisms, makes for an interesting protagonist. You never know what he’s thinking. Fletcher is exceptional and was robbed of an Academy Award nomination. Her death scene is spectacular. As she dies of a heart attack, she records her experiences on the virtual reality software. Brainstorm could’ve been an incredible movie with a little more heart.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Firestarter, 1984

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“John, the friendly orderly, will make her happy because he’s the only one who can. And when John feels she has reached the moment of her greatest happiness, he will strike her across the bridge of the nose, breaking it explosively and sending bone fragments into her brain. It’ll be quick. And he’ll be looking at her face at the time. He will know her power. And when he dies, which I hope is very soon, perhaps he can take that power with him… into the other world.”

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Firestarter, 1984 (Drew Barrymore), MCA/Universal

We pick up in mid-story. David Keith and daughter Drew Barrymore are on the run from nefarious government agents working under the auspices of “The Shop”, a kind of CIA Science Branch that specializes in chemical warfare and drug experimentation. Some ten to fifteen years before, a drug called Lot 6 is tested in a double-blind study. Andy and soon-to-be wife Vicki (Heather Locklear) are participants in the study. While some are not affected (by means of placebo), and some have extremely violent reactions (one poor bastard gouges his own eyes out), Andy and Vicki begin communicating telepathically.

They marry and have a child, Charlie, with pyrokinetic powers, but members of “The Shop” (short for the Department of Scientific Intelligence) have been watching and studying the child’s growth, subjecting them to harrassment. Eventually they murder Vicki and attempt to abduct Charlie, but Andy has the power to push people; that is, he can manipulate them to do what he wishes, but his power comes at a cost. He suffers hemorrhages that will eventually kill him.

For a year, Charlie and Andy stow away in motels and keep running from “Shop” agents, who want to exploit Charlie’s power, and perhaps assemble a race of firestarters for use in future war campaigns. The scientist (Freddie Jones) involved in the original Lot 6 tests discourages any further study of her, while “Shop” head Captain Hollister (a wicked Martin Sheen) and psychopathic assassin Rainbird (George C. Scott) want to kill Andy and train Charlie to control her powers, where her father has always discouraged using them.

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They hitch a ride with kindly farmer Art Carney, who takes them back home to meet his wife (Louise Fletcher), but “The Shop” is right behind them. Carney does his best to fend off the enemy agents, and Charlie and Andy escape. They hide out in an old lakehouse, but are then quickly captured by Rainbird. Once imprisoned in a “Shop” facility, they are separated. Testing begins on Andy, while Rainbird ingratiates himself to Charlie, and pretends to be her best friend.

Under the tutilege of Hollister and Rainbird, Charlie’s powers increase. She is able to selectively set fires with her mind. Andy has not been taking the medication he has been prescribed to dampen his own telekinetic activity. He pushes Hollister into reuniting him with his daughter, but Rainbird has other ideas (he wants to destroy her and, in my view, gain her power – “the power of the gods”), and the movie ends with an incredible and violent showcase of fire effects (a variation on the climax in Carrie) in which Charlie destroys the “Shop” facilities.

Stanley Mann’s screenplay is slavishly faithful to the Stephen King book and Mark Lester’s direction is spot-on.  Tangerine Dream’s memorable score is one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Keith and Barrymore are incredibly believable as a desperate father and his precocious and dangerous daughter, and Scott and Sheen make excellent, mustache-twirling villains.  Barrymore was such a gifted young actress in this movie that King wrote a part specifically for her in 1985’s Cat’s Eye.  Reading King’s books, I’ve noted his distrust of authority and government (The Stand and Under the Dome spring to mind) as well as his fascination with children (Carrie, The Shining).  Several movie adaptations of King stories played on cable at this time, such as Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine.

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On a personal note, enjoying this movie as a kid (as I’ve said before, I love stories about kids with insane, god-like powers), I never thought I’d have a daughter of my own.  Barrymore, in this movie, reminds me so much of my daughter; not that she has the ability to summon fire, but the sweetness, the innocence of childhood imparted.  Firestarter is one of the very few movies out there to stress and comment upon the importance of fathers and their daughters, and for that reason, this movie earns very high marks from me, and it is one of my favorite adaptations of Stephen King.

Anyone who listens to a child’s crying with understanding will know that psychic forces, terrible forces, sleep within it, different from anything commonly assumed: profound rage and pain and lust for destruction.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Thanks for reading Vintage Cable Box’s Halloween 2016 Horror Movie Coverage.  I had a lot of fun watching these movies and I hope you had fun reading! 

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.